A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21 and Ezekiel 37:1-14 preached on May 24th, 2015.
Today, we come together to give witness to the moment when Christ’s church was birthed into the world. Pentecost comes 50 days after the Easter resurrection and 10 days after the ascension of Jesus.
Pentecost is the festival of flame and wind—the moment when the wind of the Spirit, the same Spirit that blew over the waters at our planet’s infancy, comes to God’s people and infuses us with new vitality and brand new being. Pentecost is that moment when we, like the apostles on that very first Pentecost, stop being passive hearers, watchers, consumers, spectators of our Lord’s message—hidden away in our closets where no one can find us—and for the first time walk out into the world embodying the ministry and presence of Jesus for all around us to see.
Pentecost is the Jesus follower’s coming-out party, and therefore the birth of the Church. But we don’t walk out of our hideaways under our own power. We do so because the Holy Spirit animates our lifeless bodies, provoking us to speech and arousing us to action.
That’s the message of this passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel is led by God into the middle of a desert—lifeless and silent. God asks him to preach a sermon to a cemetery—not even that, really, a bone yard. Imagine vultures circling overhead. How creepy is this story?!
I visited one of my mentors and pastor friends a year ago and we toured one of the oldest cemeteries in his town of Greenville, SC. I didn’t know he was taking me there. He just said he wanted to show me the quiet neighborhood. Who preaches sermons to the lifeless?
The valley of bones Ezekiel preaches to represents the people of Israel in exile. Cut-off, dried-up, outside of the fertile land of that they flourished in for so long. Cast outside into the desert wastelands of Babylon. The dry bones in this story are Israelites experiencing social desolation—who are beyond the point where they still have hope of returning back to life as they knew it before. These bones Ezekiel sees in this vision are hopelessly lifeless. There’s no future for them.
What these exiled people needed was a resurrection for their entire community—to be lifted out of their hopelessness and have their very bones rattled awake by the Spirit of God. Stuck in a place that only dealt them death, that was their only prospect for life.
The Holy Spirit stirs us to action. She rattles us awake and breathes life into our lifelessness. She moves these dry bones of ours until there is flesh on them again—and nurtures strength in us until we learn how to walk again. The challenge and invitation of Pentecost is to have our bones be moved until we are stirred to action, and our tongues animated until they take on speech and begin proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel to those around us.
On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, she takes the disciples and she shoves them out of their complacency, and into a world and among a people who need to hear a word from Jesus.
In the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, the disciples had been cooped up. They met for worship, they had all their committee meetings (in Acts 1, they voted on who was going to replace Judas as the new 12th disciple), they gathered around their tables to discuss their models and strategies, they made their budget, they cooked meals for one another, but still they stayed cooped up—frozen inside their own church building—too scared to take the Good News outside their walls. When the Holy Spirit comes, she turns fear into power, confusion into clarity, and silence into communication.
That first Pentecost Day, the Holy Spirit blew in and through the disciples and she stirred them awake, coaxing them out of their paralysis and into life, and giving them new tongues so they could break their silence. The disciples who before had no voice were now speaking in languages other than their own so that all could talk to others around them, and they understood those who spoke to them in their own languages. That’s what the Holy Spirit can do: She animates what was once dead and arouses it to life and gives us what we need to embody, in ourselves—in you and in me—the person of Christ, so that in our speech, in our very selves—deep within our bones—we take on the very person of Jesus Christ—until the Gospel we proclaim with our words and our lives is the same Gospel Jesus proclaimed with His words and His life.
The question this passage from Ezekiel should have us ask is this: Will our bones be shaken awake? Will the very core of who we are—our very marrow—take on new life? That’s the question God asks Ezekiel. That’s God’s question to His people in this passage: Can these bones live?
Looking out at the wasteland in front of him, Ezekiel answers God in a smart and honest way. He stares into this bone yard that the Spirit led him into, and all he sees is dried-up nothingness. A parched and hopeless sight. The very center of the people of God, all the way down to the hollowness of their bones—their essential selves, their deepest being—is gone. Their spirits are in exile. Ezekiel answers out of that hopelessness by turning the question back to God:
God only you know, Ezekiel replies.
Can Huntington find its way out of the wilderness of heroine addiction? When we look out over the landscape of that issue, there’s no sign of life there. So, God, only you know.
How about the wasteland of gangs in inner cities across our country? The wreckage of hunger across this community? How about the silence that functions like death and falls so hard onto communities oppressed by hatred and social and spiritual separation? For communities and races and social classes all across this nation who, no matter what they do, will always be less-than in the eyes of others? Isn’t cruelty like that: a lifeless desert? Can these bones live?
The Holy Spirit moves the unmovable and stirs to life what seemed lost forever to death—bringing speech to silent situations. The answer’s Yes, these bones can live.
God’s Spirit injects hope into lifeless communities and brings vitality where there was once only lifelessness. And empowered with this same Holy Spirit, we can be participants in that reanimation of creation. God used Ezekiel to take those broken bones and piece them back together again. God can use us to do the same for all those around us who are experiencing a sort of death in their lives.
If we breathe in the holy breath offered to uξs at Pentecost, we participate in a redoing of creation itself when the wind of God first blew over the waters. What God does at Pentecost is animate an entire community—recreating us to be a part of a brand new way of creation. Pentecost happens when communities are brought back to life. That’s the business the Holy Spirit is in. It’s death in reverse. She animates what was once still and stuck in place. She reinvigorates those who for far too long lived in despair, and she revitalizes what was once a wasteland.
At Pentecost we celebrate that, with the Holy Spirit, the animating presence of life—stirring us to action, encouraging us, and urging us on—that nothing, absolutely nothing is beyond redemption. These bones can live. Today, we are asked to embody that hope—that “ Yes!” from God.
This story from Ezekiel makes me wonder about something: Are our expectations big enough?
Ezekiel stared out at a field of dried up bones and was one honest comment away from saying to God,
You gotta be kidding me with this! These bones can’t live! Look at them, God! Of course they can’t!!
You know he wanted to say it. That was the truth as he saw it. But led by the Spirit of God, Ezekiel took on a hope that wasn’t his—confronting an apparently dead situation, and wondering out loud if it could be restored back to life.
Maybe God knows what he’s doing, so I’ll do what God has asked me to do.
And God’s Spirit connected bone-to-bone, and placed sinews onto them, and bound those bones back together again. And then God put breath back inside of them and let them live again—giving a future to a people who thought they didn’t have one.
Jesus said with our prayers mountains can move. So, let me ask it again on this Pentecost Sunday: Are our expectations of what God can do big enough?
Pastor Mark Batterson says is this way:
Bold prayers honor God, and God honors bold prayers. God isn’t offended by your biggest dreams or boldest prayers. God is offended by anything less. If your prayers aren’t impossible to you, they are insulting to God.
Are your problems bigger than God, he asks, Or is God bigger than your problems?
Our biggest problem, he suggests, is our small view of God.
Pentecost is when we take time to celebrate a God who brings life to dead situations, when the Holy Spirit turns a dead end into a highway. When she shakes us awake, sends us out, and empowers us to be difference-makers in and for the world. God has the power to create life where it seems only death exists. Do we know that?
May our bones be moved by the Holy Spirit just as the bones of those disciples were moved on that very first Pentecost Day. And may God animate, revitalize, and reinvigorate our bones—the very core of us—for service and witness to the Gospel of his son and our Savior.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!